The world got a lot less funny this year. First Robin Williams and now Joan Rivers. Losing Jonathan Winters in 2013 didn't help either. But the world's been getting less funny and more serious for a long time now. It feels like you can't say anything with an edge without getting attacked -- unless you were Joan Rivers.
An upstate state senate candidate, Richard Funke, came under fire last month for a quip posted on his private Facebook page. "Osama bin Laden was living with three wives in one compound and didn't leave the house for five years," he wrote. "It is now believed he called the Navy SEALS himself."
Funke apologized for the posting. He shouldn't have. It was a joke any married couple would understand. When I told it to my wife, she laughed, slapped me on the arm, and said, "that's terrible," before telling it to a friend. She easily could have fired back with the one about a wife having trouble teaching her dog to sit. "Give up," her husband said, "It'll never work." "Don't worry, dear" she replied, "It took awhile with you, too."
That's also a joke.
Humor has a role in life. It allows us to work through conflicts and contradictions between the mind and spirit. The best jokes tickle us at a visceral rather than synaptic level. They speak to a truth we feel.
Max Eastman was best known as a 20th Century Greenwich Village radical and publisher of "The Masses," who later became a fierce anti-Socialist. But humor was Eastman's other great study in life, interspersing books like "The Sense of Humor" (1921) and "Enjoyment of Laughter" (1936), with serious tomes, such as "Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution" (1926).
Eastman was brilliant. He lectured at universities on humor and what it means to mankind. "Laughter is, after speech, the chief thing that holds society together," he said -- this from a radical leftist under FBI surveillance. I wonder what Eastman would have thought of today's political correctness police.
Joan Rivers was America's antidote to political correctness. She said outrageous things, both about herself and about others -- and we loved her for it. They were sometimes awful things, but they were always funny. (To wit: "And since we're all adults here, let's be brutally honest -- most babies are not actually attractive. In fact, they're weird and freakish-looking. A large percentage of them are squinty-eyed and bald and their faces are all mushed together, kind of like Renée Zellweger pushed up against a glass window.) Like I said, sometimes awful.
She got away with it because she refused to stop. She wasn't intimidated by critics from the right or the left. Joan Rivers was Joan Rivers. Deal with it.
Peter Roff, a U.S. News and World Report columnist, reminds us that sometimes biting humor can strike close to the line. In a column lamenting Williams's suicide, Roff recalled a German talk show host interviewing Williams: "Why do you think there is not so much comedy in Germany?" Without missing a beat, Williams said, "Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?"
Williams's quip may have been offensive, but it was rooted in something still deeply felt, but rarely said anymore. Maybe it still needs to be.
Laughter can help heal the deepest wounds over time. It allows us to address topics we might otherwise stuff deep down inside, to our detriment.
"My husband killed himself," Rivers said in a stage routine after the 1987 suicide of her husband, Edgar. "It was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head."
I'm sure he's getting her back for that now.
Joan Rivers, RIP.